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Berceuse 'Sur un vieil air'

author of text

This beautiful song, in many ways the composer’s most original mélodie, is an unjustly neglected jewel – Winton Dean calls it ‘a veritable little masterpiece’. The lyric is by someone saluted by Rimbaud, no less, as the most gifted poetess since Sappho; her less extravagant contemporaries compared her to Louise Labé. In any case there are too few musical settings of her pithily elegant (though rather unsophisticated) lyrics. The music was certainly inspired by the famous Gounod Sérénade which was composed about a decade earlier – the same 6/8 rhythm and a similarly hypnotic accompaniment. The strophic structure is repetitive enough to send a child to sleep, but the slow unwinding of the melody brings a bemused smile to the faces of bewitched adult listeners. The piece is subtitled ‘Sur un vieil air’, and this old nursery tune is brought out in the right-hand accompaniment, sounding like the ring of a carillon. (Couperin used this little jingle, and we hear it towards the end of the ‘Mi-a-ou’ movement of the Fauré’s Dolly suite, as well as in Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie.) This old melody is decorated, in startling modern fashion, with a sixth added to the tonic chord, a device better prophetic of jazz – only the first of a number of unusual touches in a song remarkable for its harmonic subtlety. For example, at ‘Si l’enfant repose’ the melody moves up a whole tone, the B natural in the context of F major giving the music a feeling of Lydian modality. The bass note of the left hand is a pedal note: it remains an F, but it now becomes the third inversion of the dominant seventh on G. This harmonic legerdemain gives an other-worldly atmosphere to the music which, in several places, sounds more like a Britten folksong arrangement than a mélodie from 1868. Berceuse gives us some indication of the astonishingly uninhibited nature of Bizet’s creative personality at its best. And it underlines the loss suffered by French mélodie as a result of his early death.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998

Cette magnifique chanson – à bien des égards la plus originale du compositeur – est un joyau injustement négligé; Winton Dean la qualifie de «véritable petit chef-d’œuvre». Le poème lyrique revient à un auteur que Rimbaud, rien moins, salua comme la poétesse la plus douée depuis Sappho, et que des contemporains moins extravagants comparèrent à Louise Labé. Quoi qu’il en soit, ses poèmes lyriques, élégamment concis malgré une absence de sophistication, sont trop rarement mis en musique. La présente musique fut certainement inspirée par la célèbre Sérénade de Gounod, composée environ dix ans auparavant – le même rythme à 6/8 et un accompagnement tout aussi hypnotique. La pièce est sous-titrée «Sur un vieil air», et cette vieille berceuse est lancée dans l’accompagnement de la main droite, qui ressemble à une sonnerie de carillon. (Couperin utilisa ce petit tintement, que nous pouvons également entendre vers la fin du mouvement Mi-a-ou de la suite Dolly de Fauré, ainsi que dans les Jardins sous la pluie de Debussy). Cette vieille mélodie est ornée, d’une manière extraordinairement moderne, d’une sixte ajoutée à l’accord de la tonique, selon un procédé plutôt annonciateur du jazz – la première seulement des multiples touches insolites qui jalonnent cette chanson remarquable pour sa subtilité harmonique.

extrait des notes rédigées par Graham Johnson © 1998
Français: Hypérion


Bizet: Songs
CDA66976Archive Service


Track 18 on CDA66976 [5'14] Archive Service

Track-specific metadata for CDA66976 track 18

Recording date
7 May 1997
Recording venue
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Bizet: Songs (CDA66976)
    Disc 1 Track 18
    Release date: February 1998
    Deletion date: January 2013
    Archive Service
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